Does wearing a utilikilt and fuzzy boots make you more “authentic?”

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

I’m not so sure.  Burning Man has a profound psychological, even spiritual, impact on people – but are we really more authentic than anybody else?

I’d be a lot more convinced if so many people at Burning Man didn’t dress so much alike:  as if strapping on a leather harness and glow sticks because it makes you fit in at the sound camp really makes you more authentic than someone who dresses in a gray flannel suit for his job at the accounting firm.

I’d be a lot more convinced if all the music wasn’t so similar – surely all our inner selves can’t be DJs?

I’d be more convinced by claims to authenticity if more people’s “authentic” selves didn’t fit so neatly with ideals that other people thought up. Nobody gets authenticity points for following the 10 commandments:  why should they get them for following the 10 principles?

While there’s certainly a lot of iconoclasm and personal eccentricity at Burning Man … there’s also a hell of a lot of conformity.  Given the chance to go out in the desert and do anything, it’s obvious that many of us decide to imitate each other.  But the rhetoric of authenticity persists.  What causes so many of us to feel authentic while we’re keeping up with the Sparkles?

I’d say there are three reasons:

  • Burning Man is an ecstatic experience, and ecstatic experiences always feel authentic no matter what you actually do;
  • The issues Burning Man brings up in people are deeply personal and, in that sense, “authentic,” even if people choose to address them in an inauthentic way;
  • That however much Burners may conform, Burning Man as a culture values eccentricity enough that people who genuinely choose to do something unique and different are given far more support than they are in the default world.

Still with me?  Then let’s start from the beginning.  Nevermind what the Sparkles are doing … yes, I know, their sound camp has a flamethrower.  But, trust me, you’ll see that again.

Ecstatic rituals have been a basic part of most cultures.  They get us out of our skin, take us away from our lives,  ground us in the moment, connect us to the divine – and modern culture doesn’t have any. Especially multi-tasking screen jockeys.  There is, perhaps, a need … every bit as authentic as hunger and thirst … to experience the ecstatic and be focused in the moment.  For some people Burning Man fills that need – and hallelujah.

Any ecstatic experience will feel authentic in the moment, precisely because you are in the moment.  Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that people are at their most honest when they orgasm.  This is true, but it’s also trivial.  Dancing all night doesn’t mean your true self is a dancer any more than running for your life makes you a runner or getting sunburned makes you a piece of toast.  Ecstatic experiences may be as important to us as eating and drinking, but simply meeting those needs doesn’t make you an authentic person in any meaningful sense.

It can’t, because the whole point of having an ecstatic experience is that it gets us out of our “selves,” taking our identity away and merging us with something larger.  Ecstatic experiences are *transpersonal* – and while they may be essential to life, they also have very little to say about who we are as individuals.

Besides, ecstatic experiences are also just one part of Burning Man … and often just a small part.  Equally crucial to the sense of “authenticity” that so many associate with Burning Man is the fact that Burning Man has an extraordinary psychological acuity.  For oh so many of us, going to Burning Man is like sitting on Freud’s couch with a geisha.  The intensity, the sexuality, the art, the closeness to this natural yet alien landscape … these ingredients are a potent alchemy.  Whatever your issues are, Burning Man brings them up.

This is an authentically personal psychological process.  I mean, if it isn’t nothing is.  They’re your issues, made manifest.  Confronting them will always feel authentic.

But much in the same way that watching An Inconvenient Truth doesn’t necessarily make you an environmentalist, going to Burning Man and being confronted with your issues doesn’t necessarily make you any more authentic.  It only creates the possibility of authenticity.

And this is the key factor:  more than anything else, Burning Man creates possibility.  Anything can happen – and you’re part of that.

If anything can happen, of course, you can become in touch with your authentic self … but you can also leave it behind.  In an atmosphere of near infinite possibility, you can try on new selves the way people build new theme camps.  Then leave at the end of the week.

And why wouldn’t you?

Because in the “default world” such possibility is even harder to come by than authenticity.  It’s rare.  You have a life to live:  deviation has serious consequences.  You don’t have time to confront your issues head on (many of us wouldn’t know how anyway), and you don’t have the freedom to experiment with answers.  And then you come to Burning Man, and suddenly everything’s on the table.

Everything.  Authenticity is just the appetizer.

In that sense, Burning Man is as inauthentic a community – in the best possible sense – as you’ll find anywhere.  Our experiences of authenticity are overwhelmed by the experience of possibility.  The desert is an open space.  Authenticity co-exists with illusion, play, and false faces.

What’s authentic at Burning Man is what you’re confronted with, not necessarily what you do with it.

What we are is incredibly supportive to what our various fellows choose to do with that freedom.  While there is an obnoxious strain of “more burner than thou” that persists on the playa, in most cases most people are not only tolerant of the choices other burners make, they’d like to help.

Whatever direction you’re going, people at Burning Man would like to give you a push.   Want to dance all night and sleep all day with complete strangers?  Right on!  Here are some vitamins.  Want to dedicate yourself to helping a performance artist distribute chocolate to people in animal costumes?  What a great cause – feel free to crash in my van.  Want to erect a 50 foot phallus entirely out of duct tape?  Hey, listen, if you need more duct tape …

This can lead to some incredibly stupid life choices made to the cheers of a topless Greek chorus, but you can’t say we weren’t there with you.  Burners celebrate most of the choices people make, the more eccentric and creative the better.

But what we’re celebrating is eccentricity and creativity.  While we support authenticity in principle, in practice we don’t really care if the things people do on the playa are authentic expressions of their inner selves:  we just like it that they’re being creative eccentrics.  I’ve honstely never thought:  “Yes, his art car is a panoply of festive lights and fine alcohol, but is this appropriately representative of the way he lives at home?”

I bet you haven’t either.

Burning Man is a space where great authenticity can happen, because anything can happen.  It’s set up to encourage you to embrace possibility, but remains agnostic on the issue of authenticity.  Be who you want to be, even if it isn’t true:  someone will support you.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

14 thoughts on “Does wearing a utilikilt and fuzzy boots make you more “authentic?”

  • Thank you. When I went to the burn 2 years ago some camp mates were asking why didn’t i bring a costume. They thought it very unburner of me not to participate dressing up. I explained I have no need to dress up, I am comfortable with what I am wearing and I participate by providing myself and interacting. Needless to say I don’t think they got it.

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  • Beautifully written as always. I agree, the creative eccentric experience at Burning Man gives people the opportunity to try on an infinite number of potential selves. The psychological value in that experience, I believe, occurs when one discovers a valuable (to them) aspect of the self that they then cultivate in the default world. THAT is authenticity.

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  • each year I think about getting a furry coat made or buying a kilt but when it gets closer to the burn I end up in my tee shirts and shorts because they are confortable. The main reason I am looking at new clothes this year is because I think some people look at me and think I am a cop or something when I walk into their camp. Maybe I am paranoid but I had a couple of experiences where I walked into a camp and was asked a million questions about myself before they finally loosened up and shared some good times with me. I don’t mind talking about myself and letting people learn about me but it seemed a little tense. In any case, maybe I will have a new fuzzy hat or light up vest this year, we will see what happens by the time I leave for Burning Man.

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  • When I stare, on a Thursday night, in the middle of the Playa, at the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, tear-inducing multitude of lights surrounding me, I can only think of one thing: Generosity. All the hours of work it took to fabricate those art cars, sew candy on the dresses, paint & sequin those shoes, dye and tear those old sheets for cammo-netting, re-fashion the grandfather’s tent into a casbah, test and retest the electronics, etc…. All as a gift, all for “my” personal visual enjoyment/orgasm. I want to scream, “Eat your heart out, Disneyland, this is not produced for profit. Eat your heart out, New York/Paris/Rio, there is more creativity per square inch RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW than anywhere else on the planet.”
    Nowadays you can buy your lit & furry coat (for $800). You can also decide to wear shorts and a t-shirt. But, by doing so, you’re denying yourself the chance to GIVE. So if you bought the “easy” furry outfit or wear the same thriftstore bathrobe everyday, I hope you also wear a dazzling smile and give of yourself in some other fabulous, authentic way. Give every chance you can. Preparation is included in that.

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  • Ah, that helps! I’ve often wondered if the ubiquitous nerdy-chick in body paint is truly that “self-expression” which we claim to celebrate, even when someone else did the painting. I don’t think so, but it is *self-exploration*. In this case, daring to flaunt your flesh is an adventure in *possibility*. Which is in-fact authentic. And I’ve always celebrated that.

    Larry Harvey once addressed the issue of costume-elitism by stating something to the tune of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the guy who created the big ferris wheel with the LED movie screen on the side could walk down the streets of BRC in khaki shorts and sunglasses, unafraid of being ostracized as a ‘tourist’. The solution would be a zip-up suit with tattoos and dreadlocks—a kind of partici-pants.”

    Sure, a great outfit is a good conversation-starter, but we need to get over our fashion-police instincts, and realize that everyone present is truly present, simply by the fact that they made it to the desert.

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  • I’ve been trying to explain similar notions to people for years. I love this article. I still encourage people to wear costumes but not just what everyone else wears, and not just something that seems cool. I personally, dress the way I want to dress at Burning Man. I say to myself, “if I’m allowed to wear anything I want, what would it be?” And I come up with creative stuff that I personally feel wonderful in. And I try to stray away from the “mainstream” look of other Burners.

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  • This should be a banner year of neato costumes!!!! This would have been my 15th year, had a I “Won the Lottery”. Larry should do a package bundle deal with your ticket. Kilt, dust mask, glow sticks, one hit of of E. Maybe one of the Cable shows can do a reality show on the Playa. “Biggest Playa Loser”. “My First Rave”. “Busted by the BLM” Shoot a couple scenes in the Thunder Dome. Go read some poetry in Center Camp. Radical self expression rocks. Fuck ya!

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  • Well, the first year I went I sat around the BeeHop Pancake House and talked with a long red-haired gentleman with just regular clothes on, tee shirt, shorts. But, on his head he wore a little kids birthday party hat complete with tiny rubberized cord. Turns out he was a scientist working on the just about complete Human Genome Project and was heading to Bali after that Burn of 1997. Soo-o-o-o- I learned straight off never ever concern myself with whatever anyone had on, but better to take the time to explore the person rather than anything else. Creativity is there for the pleasure, however it expresses! And, it’s all just too funny and too wonderful to bother with anything less.

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  • No matter where we go there will be radical leaders and crazy creative people. There will also be those who are being as creative as they can muster, and to some it may no look very creative. There will be people who don’t care for being concerned about clothing choices – or clothing for that matter. There will be people who follow the leaders, and get involved with mild variations of the imitation of others.

    I suppose in some sense following the leader just might be someone’s expression of authenticity. That might not sound very Burneresque, but even our radicalism at some point becomes its own status quo, and there are only so many leaders. The rest of us are bleating to the tunes we identify with best. Maybe that is our authenticity? I dunno – just blathering here now.

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  • I am a burner of 18 years in a row and have seen the transformation of the event. it has evolved to what it is and will continue to be what it is. people ask what should they do and what costumes to bring etc. the only answers I give is to dress in what makes them happy and bring what they need as the weather can be harsh or nice, always changing. bring lights for the night and something to ride on. try to enjoy yourself without expectations and have your own experience. I do not gift cool swag and have so much it needs its own display. I gift by helping anyone who needs it with a cold drink, food, a ride or a quiet place to sit if needed. I provide a interesting interactive camp and that is my gift. I give of myself in art and thank those who really go all the way to make my experience fun. I enjoy each and every day of life as it is short. I tell them to enjoy the majesty of the playa in all its moods and to just breath. I dance and am happy.

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